In this series of articles, I deliberately concentrated on areas around the cost of living: motoring and utility bills, wages, tax cuts for lower earners and vocational education. Some might ask why Skills form part of this agenda: but without high-level skills and training, the chances of unemployment or having a low paid-job remain high.
Having set out a few areas of policy, it is worth setting out three principles that should guide Conservatives on these kind of issues: fundamental truths, a relentless focus and leading by example.
First: Fundamentals. Few of the measures proposed can be done without getting the fundamentals of what matters to people on the street correct. The Government has made great progress on the economy; we have cut the deficit by one-third, and we are on the road to recovery. However, living standards are slow to catch up. We should recognise that general taxation, mortgages and interest rates are huge cost-of-living indicators: getting to grips with these have significant implications for living standards, perhaps more than any other. Areas such as taxation, where the Government has the ability to make changes, should be targeted. A study by the Resolution Foundation showed that seven out of ten people say that a reduction in the cost of essentials such as food and fuel would make the biggest difference to their living standards. Although the Government has little power to control prices, they can make changes to taxation which will leave people with more money in their pockets so that they can afford these basics. This then, should be the Government’s priority: get the fundamentals right and it is easier to do the rest.
When Labour talk about a cost of living crisis, they have to persuade the public that they have the answers to win the political debate. Luckily for us, polling shows that the public trusts us on the economy, but we must not be complacent – two weeks ago, a ComRes survey revealed that 41 per cent of people believe that their cost of living would be better under Labour than the Tories. We can only go on to win this argument if our language and attitude empathises with those who struggle the most.
Second: A relentless focus – A Cost of Living Impact Assessment. Conservatives can’t allow Labour to take control of the cost of living territory. Ed Miliband’s energy freeze came months after being the party for the benefits culture status quo. As well as setting out the Conservative record on tax cuts for lower earners, tax freezes and the like, every major piece of policy should have a Cost of Living Impact Assessment, in order to stop future policies like green energy tax , which has added hundreds of pounds to energy bills, and the like. This needn’t be complex – the impact of proposed legislation on current EU law is already examined, for example.
Third: Leading by Example: cheaper membership, member services and candidate’s bursaries. The Conservative Party must be at the forefront of being on the side of working people. We can show this by offering free or reduced membership to trade unionists (of whom a third vote Conservative) and the same to those who are lower paid. The Labour Party already offer something similar – low earners, those working part time, and members of the armed services, get reduced membership fees. We could go even further than this and reduce all membership to just £1.
Being a member of the Conservative Party should not just mean that the only benefit you get is a membership card. We could be more like a trade union or the Co-operative society, offering services to members, like cheaper legal and health insurance and retail discounts – alongside traditional political activities.
To help aspiring Parliamentary Candidates from low-income backgrounds, there should be a special bursary fund. This would encourage those who would not otherwise be MPs and widen our pool of potential candidates.
The Right are great at intellectualising ideas, whereas the Left are better at campaigning. The Labour Party has already been on the doorsteps about the seductive, but false, promise of energy price freezes. As Conservatives, we need to change our whole focus on how we look at these issues, turn our work into campaigns, and work with people in our communities to show them that we are on their side.